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Jill Di Donato Headshot

The Shame Spiral

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Let me tell you a story of two women. One woman had a bad day: She messed up a presentation at work; didn't get an award she was up for; went out and drank too much, ate even more, called her toxic ex and cried on the phone until he agreed that she could come over. The next morning, she woke up sweating, her heart racing. She wanted to throw up, purge herself of the booze and junk food she'd consumed during her nocturnal binge when she was feeling powerless and feral. I keep screwing up, she thought. She wanted to scratch the skin from her body, remove the stench left by her ex, an illogical choice of people to turn to when she was feeling isolated and alone as he had a history of making her feel worse and, right on cue, as they were in the throes of passion, all she kept thinking was: I am such a loser.

The question becomes, why would she inflict torture on herself when she was already feeling bad? It's called the shame spiral. The next morning, she quietly dressed as not to wake her passed-out ex, searched her purse and prayed to find a pair of sunglasses so she might eschew eye contact with passersby on her morning "walk of shame." All the while, she did everything she could to hold back the deluge of tears that were choking her: She felt bad about feeling bad. It was, after all, her fault for taking a rotten situation and making it worse. At least, that's how she saw it.

The other woman also had a bad day. She received criticism at work and was passed over for a promotion. The man to whom she'd once been engaged had sent her another nasty email that read like a laundry list of everything that was wrong with her. She missed a woman with whom she was no longer friends, and wondered how it was that so many people who'd once been staples in her life had vanished. She could feel herself about to start spinning. I screwed up, she thought. But then she stopped herself. Mistakes happen. People screw up all the time. "I am not a loser," she said it out loud so she could really hear herself. She had her arsenal of things to do when she was feeling this way: Call a friend, go for a walk and start a conversation with a stranger, remind herself of her accomplishments, do something empowering like go for a run, repeat mantras from women she admires and remember that who she is remains distinct from the things she's done. She also knew to avoid triggers that would end up making her feel even worse -- which meant staying away from isolating forces like toxic people and social media (where everyone seems to be living amazing lives, even though we know they're curated), avoiding depressants like alcohol and indulgent foods that offer short-term release, but end up making her feel gluttonous and weak in their wake.

Confession: I am both of these women. Having put myself through the ringer of the shame spiral, I can say that living my life is a lot more pleasant when I speak back to feeling damaged, used, passed over or around, and leave room for the myriad other feelings that exist within me (they are there, even when I'm feeling at my worst -- but I have to dig deep to access them).

Such excavation is hard work, especially when you're feeling beat down by a job/friend/man/body (I can go on and on) that doesn't validate you. But this self-talk is the only antidote for shame. Dr. Brené Brown -- researcher, TED speaker, author of the book Daring Greatly and a psychologist who has spent a decade researching shame -- explains that self-talk is essential in breaking free from the shame spiral. "You've got to reach out and tell your story. You've got to speak your shame."

It's no easy feat to admit to flaws, because that means they're real and we have to confront them. Accepting our mistakes or shortcomings -- choices that may not have served us well, unflattering ways others may perceive us, or subtle imperfections that gnaw away at us -- is uncomfortable in the short-term, but acknowledging them can ward off long-term problems. Dr. Brown's research points to the fact that "shame [is] highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, bullying and aggression," which can all serve as masks or so-called armor we don to keep ourselves from dealing with, simply put, the reality of ourselves.

It seems simple enough. On the one hand, as logical women, we know one gets validated by external forces all the time. I'd be lying if I said external validation doesn't feel fantastic -- intoxicating even. It's also a given that we will screw up; that's inevitable. So, therefore, it's understandable that we don't feel terrific when we screw up. We might even feel guilty. So, why do we let it make us feel like losers? We live in a culture where at every turn -- from our religious beliefs to our peers' admonishments -- judgment is de rigueur. But the difference between shame and guilt is that shame is an internalized feeling of guilt. In other words, shame relates to self, guilt to others. This distinction is so crucial, especially, in my opinion, for women.

There are many reasons women internalize social, psychological and institutional forces more so than our male counterparts. We have a history of being called "hysterical" and everything from our anatomy to over-diagnosed anxiety disorder in women supports this notion that we internalize shame to a greater degree than men. It's not surprising that Dr. Brown's research shows that most women feel shame about issues that are in some way related to femininity, or a modern-day incarnation of the feminine mystique. Regarding her research on women and shame, she says:

Without exception, all of the participants' shame experiences fit in one of these categories: identity, appearance, sexuality, family, motherhood, parenting, health (mental and physical), aging, religion and a woman's ability to stand up and speak out for herself. These are the categories in which women struggle the most with feelings of shame.

Most recently, the media has jumped on the idea of slut-shaming, although attacking a woman and judging her for her sexuality is nothing new. As a journalist, novelist, professor and women's advocate, I can speak to the fact that most people know me for writing about my dating and sex life, even though that's only one fraction of the work I do in the public sphere. Being slut-shamed has hurt me personally; made me feel used and, recently, I had to hold back tears in a business meeting where my public image was called "inappropriate." But I'm not going to self-reproach for showing emotion or feeling wounded because that would continue the shame spiral.

Instead, I'm going to summon my inner-Madonna, who in 1985, had some choice words for detractors who tried to bring her down. Tabloids, Playboy and Penthouse ran nude pictures of her that had been taken when she was a struggling artist's model and the media went wild. What did she do? She spoke back to the scandal and collaborated with two of the decade's biggest artists, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, to make art and headlines of her own. She used three words, simple and to the point to bravely self-talk in a public. So follow in Madge's footsteps and repeat as often as necessary: "I'm not ashamed."